Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Freakonomics Cultists Must Die

What in the world is the deal with all this "Freakonomics" worship?

I am, as Cheech and Chong famously put it, sick up and fed with all of this Freak-o crap.

It's a perfectly good book. I admire Levitt. He is a fine man. Very smart, and may bring Economics as a discipline back toward an empirical focus. (I'm sure Stephen Dubner is also wonderful).

But Freakonomics is simply arm-chair, superficial, first-thought-that-comes-into-your-mind social science. (Yes, it is TESTED empirically, but not all alternatives occur to you in the first thought that comes into your mind).

At the IHS conference, I talked a bit about several results in political science and econ. Two different students demanded that I immediately explain why all the journal article results were different from the Freakonomics results.

(For example, the Freak-o claim was that campaign spending doesn't matter, at all. That's nonsense. People have shown that both challenger and incumbent, but especially challenger, spending matters a lot. SL is flat wrong about that. Plus, he mismeasures things, and ignores the fact that he would need an equilibrium model to solve the endogeneity of spending).

Now, I love Freakonomics. The emphasis on testing, the idea that we can learn things from empirical work...all great.

But one of these kids at the Stanford conference demanded that I come with him and go over the Freakonomics claims. I said I wasn't interested. He said, "Why are you so afraid of the truth?"

Gosh, fella, I've studied this question myself, and the literature on this question, for 20 years. There are dozens of different papers that show that Levitt has this wrong. And the reason is simple: he has misspecified the model, in ways we have understood for decades. I have no interest in explaining in detail why Levitt is wrong in this instance, at 11 pm when we are having cocktails. I am particularly uninterested in explaining it to a junior grad student who is proud (and rightly so!) of the great depth of his ignorance of political science. That makes me AFRAID?

(SIDENOTE: Does that argument actually work for you sometimes, kid? Is that how other people got you to drink your first beer in high school? "Do it or we will call you 'big chicken-face'?" You need to get out more, pumpkin.)

More and more people have this belief that Levitt is some kind of prophet, a god-like figure. Levitt does not present himself that way in person, and makes NO such claims in his book. He just wants to make the read think. So it is not HIS fault.

He got a lot of profit (I'm punning on "prophet", you see) out of Freakonomics, sure. But much of the work in that book is simply provocative, and intentionally so. It is designed to make the point that it is fun and interesting to do your own tests. I agree with all that.

But it is not surprising that he got a lot of things wrong. That is one of the great things about empirical work: I *know* he got it wrong, and I can prove it. Challenger spending definitely matters, even controlling for challenger charisma. And the data are not IID, because in equilibrium it is true that charismatic challengers get more money. But that doesn't mean the spending doesn't matter.

Anyway, bottom line: Steve Levitt--way to go.

Young goofballs who think that Levitt's empirical work is perfect, and doesn't itself need to be tested--you are missing Levitt's own point.

This is statistical inference, not religion class.

UPDATE: I should be more careful. On rereading, my interpretation of the book is unduly harsh, and inaccurate. SL does not really say campaign spending doesn't matter at all. In particular, he never makes the equilibrium claims I attribute to him above. Those claim were made by his self-appointed hit men in my audience. Mea culpa. The hit men can still bite me, however.

I would edit the post, but that would violate basic blogger ethics, since someone may have seen, and linked to, the earlier (admittedly incorrect) version. So this update will have to do.

There is something odd about this....

1. 4th of July, 1993, San Fran baseball park
2. The Grateful Dead
3. A Viet Nam veteran's group

The GD's are singing the National Anthem. And they just sing, it straight up. No Jimmy Hendrix distortion, no evident irony, other than the irony evident in their singing it.

Just watching it makes me feel like I pulled a muscle in my brain.

I mean....check this.

The vets who came back from the 'Nam were damaged. And they didn't want to be over there. But the self-appointed masters of morals spit on the vets, and judged them morally corrupt. (Or did they? This is quibbling, people. The vets were treated very badly)

I guess we have made some progress. Now, involved in another war (very different, yet eerily similar), antiwar protesters seem to be able to separate the bad war and the damaged warriors.

Or, maybe I'm just wrong. Maybe the Grateful Dead were saying "thank you" to the vets. And, if not, let me say it: Thanks, American soldiers, from all our wars. Most of you did your best, and it was usually more than good enough. When it wasn't, the problem wasn't you.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sign Up for Courses and Take You Some Stats

This is pretty catchy.

But then, so is syphillis.

The video is VERY work safe, and the song is good. Can't get it out of my head. "Got your difference on the top, and your error on the bottom."

Some observations:

1. The one poor black kid had to feel a little strange doing this. Absolutely NONE of the white kids, with the exception of the one tall woman in the black beret and the wife-beater undershirt (she is at least adequate), can rap at all. So, when the black guy does get his chance, it goes so much better. Other than those two, tho, all the performances are pretty painful.

2. Lyrics and graphics are quite nice. Generally very well done.

(Nod to JM, who can rap it down pretty well herself)

What a Commercial!

A Nike commercial.

It's hokey.

But, anytime the explanation for why a group of guys has to steal a ball is, "It's rounder", you have go with it.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The String Section

From the WSJournal, via NWFlorida Daily News (!)

(AP) - Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli didn't suffer fools gladly. Fond of calling colleagues' work "wrong" or "completely wrong," he saved his worst epithet for work so sloppy and speculative it is "not even wrong."

That's how mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University describes string theory. In his book, "Not Even Wrong," published in the U.K. this month and due in the U.S. in September, he calls the theory "a disaster for physics."

A year or two ago, that would have been a fringe opinion, motivated by sour grapes over not sitting at physics' equivalent of the cool kids' table. But now, after two decades in which string theory has been the doyenne of best-seller lists and the dominant paradigm in particle physics, Mr. Woit has company.

"When it comes to extending our knowledge of the laws of nature, we have made no real headway" in 30 years, writes physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, in his book, "The Trouble with Physics," also due in September. "It's called hitting the wall."


(nod to SdM, who seems to have lost his mind)


My spiffy, splashy new essay on EconLib, about rent-seeking, goes up officially tomorrow.

But, in EXCLUSIVE for M. End can read it a day early!

Here is the essay. And I would be interested to know what you think!

Write Your Own Headline

I tried to think of just the right headline for this, but....
So, I am soliciting comments. Help me out, in comments: what should the title for this story be? Winner gets a special mention.
Former Judge Donald D. Thompson, a veteran of 23 years on the bench, is on trial on charges he used a penis pump on himself in the courtroom while sitting in judgment of others....
Thompson's former court reporter, Lisa Foster, wiped away tears as she described tracing an unfamiliar "sh-sh" in the courtroom to her boss. She testified that between 2001 and 2003 she saw Thompson expose himself at least 15 times.
"I was really shocked and I was kind of scared because it was so bizarre," said Foster.
She testified that during a trial in 2002, she heard the pump during the emotional testimony of a murdered toddler's grandfather.
The grandfather "was getting real teary-eyed, and the judge was up there pumping on that pump," she said. "It was sickening."
The allegations came to light after a police officer who was in Thompson's court heard pumping sounds and took photos of the device during a break in the proceedings.
Thompson took the stand in his own defense, saying the device was a gag gift from a longtime friend with whom he had joked about erectile dysfunction. He said he kept the pump under the bench or in his office but didn't use it.
"In 20-20 hindsight, I should have thrown it away," he said....
...Dr. S. Edward Dakil, a urologist called as an expert witness, repeatedly prompted laughter from the jury when discussion turned to the penis pump. Dakil defended use of the device after defense attorney Clark Brewster said it was an out-of-date treatment for erectile dysfunction.
"I still use those," Dakil testified.
Brewster paused.
"Not you, personally?" he asked.
"No," Dakil responded as jurors laughed. "I recommend those as a urologist."

(An anony-nod to my main man, who has cause)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Dish

Spent the last week out at Stanford, for the IHS "Social Change" workshop.

Best ever (I have done the workshop several times, though all previous incarnations have been at UVA-Charlottesville).

Wonderful time. If you are a grad student, sign up next year when the app comes up on the web site.

The highlight: for me, it was a four mile hike with David Schmidz, the best philosopher of classical liberalism we have in the world today. We hiked up around "the Dish" on a fantastic blue-sky-with-breeze-so-can-see-the-bay-and-the-coastal-range-with-fog-and-birds-everywhere. I learned things from David, I saw things, it was great. (He knows a lot about birds, in addition to CL).

(One downside: the dorms at Stanford are the worst place I have stayed in at least 25 years. Incredibly smelly, a unique cocktail of complex noisomeness. It smelled bad, but when they cleaned the thing midweek it appeared to disturb the ghosts of bathrooms past, and then it was much worse. It was offal. Reminds me of a Stanford friend I did NOT see this time. Buy me a beer sometime, and I'll tell you the story of AR and "the bathtub, the cow, and the chainsaw.")

I DID get to see a bunch of other friends. A partial list (if I left you off, I'm sorry!): Clark Durant (Clark showed me the Dish hike first, bless his heart), Chris Nelson, John Nye, Mary Shirley, John Tomasi, Barry Weingast, Terrence Watson, Will Wilkinson, and Paul Zak. And, of course, the inexplicable Nigel Ashford, one of my favorite people. And made a bunch of new friends. (In particular: Courtney, you are a crazy person. I hope the poop soup in the backyard was receded to manageable levels, and that your manly Indiana guy Radley figured out how to get Isabel and Harper walked even in the rain).

Wonderful all around. IHS is doing a great job with this program.

We Don't Get the Smart Ones

A heartwarming story of stupidity and justice (from the SJ Mercury News):

Man arrested after he returns to eatery for items

A San Jose man might have gotten away with not paying at a Denny's restaurant in Campbell, except for the items he left on the table.

Steven Michael Thomas, 19, of San Jose allegedly left the Bascom Avenue eatery without paying a $26 bill. But he was cited for suspicion of defrauding an innkeeper when he apparently returned to retrieve his keys and a traffic ticket with his name on it.

``We don't get the smart ones,'' Campbell police Capt. Russ Patterson said.

Thomas, Patterson said, had eaten at the all-night diner with a group of friends and walked out without paying.

The group returned to drop Thomas off in a back parking lot, probably, Patterson said, so Thomas could retrieve his things.

There are several questions I want to ask:

1. $26? Why would anyone risk a pretty serious misdemeanor charge for $26? You ought at least to get your money's worth. Go someplace nicer than Denny's, if you aren't going to pay.
2. A traffic ticket with his name on it? That probably means a car. Keys...ditto. But apparently he wasn't the driver in this criminal gang of Denny's check stiffers. What did he do, clean out his pockets? Were his jeans so tight he couldn't carry a traffic ticket in his pocket?
3. Why is Thomas the fall guy? After all, the group is responsible, presumably. At least, they are all equally responsible. Did Thomas tell the others he was going to pay, and then just walk out giggling? If so, I can understand how this might have worked:
Thomas, in car, after leaving: "Dadgum it! I forgot my keys, and that traffic ticket I had to take out of my pants because they are too tight."
Other person in car: "We'll just go back and get it. We are white people, and the staff at Denny's is friendly and helpful to white people."
Thomas, thinking quickly: "" And then he walks into the Denny's, because he didn't want to admit to his friends that his tight pants had prevented him from bringing his wallet, which was why he didn't pay the bill he promised them he would pay.

Now, this last is JUST a reconstruction. So, we can't be sure. I'm just sayin'.